Christopher Smith, composer of the Broadway production “Amazing Grace,” came to Union and gave a motivational lecture entitled “The Edge of Impossible” on April 21 at 7 p.m. and led an audition practicum the next morning, both of which took place in Powell Theatre.
“This is a high level of a presentation,” assistant professor of theater John Klonowski said. “What I appreciated about it was that it was a message that resonated well with anybody. You didn’t have to be in entertainment, theater or film to get something from it.”
After Smith became a Christian, he began working as a police officer and youth outreach director in Pennsylvania. One day in 1997, he picked up a book from the library about John Newton, a cruel English slave trader who received salvation through Christ and later wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” The story of John Newton influenced his faith so deeply that he became convinced other people needed to hear this story.
Over the next 10 years, Smith taught himself to be a playwright and composer so he could tell the story of “Amazing Grace” through theater, doing the “three hardest kinds of writing” — music, lyrics, and libretto — with no experience. He began seeking financial support by informally performing the songs for his musical in front of potential sponsors, sharing his vision and asking for $100,000. He ended up raising $350,000 within the first three months and $500,000 by the end of that year.
After spending a total of 18 years trying to get his play on Broadway, it finally opened on July 16, 2015 at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway, the $19 million production being directed by Gabe Barre and produced by Carolyn Rossi Copeland.
People came from all over the world — Australia, Vancouver, Arkansas, India, to name a few locations. Smith said that to his knowledge, it was the only show in the history of Broadway productions that the focal point of the play was personal salvation in Christ. At the end of every single show performed, the entire audience rose without being asked and sang “Amazing Grace” with the cast. When it first happened, the cast didn’t know how to respond. Smith said it was the first time they’d really experienced the Holy Spirit’s taking over the show. The cast would begin to weep on stage, they were so moved.
Throughout the musical’s creation, Smith advocated for a play that was true historically and spiritually, and that’s exactly what it became. Before opening day, he sat in every single seat of the auditorium and pray over the people who would occupy it. After watching the play for the first time, Smith began watching the response of the audience instead – how they were moved by what they saw.
During Smith’s recent keynote speech at Union, he addressed the issue of fear and how it keeps us from using the gifts God has given us. With personal experience in persistence, patience, and defying the odds, Smith encouraged students in attendance to not be afraid of failure or rejection, but rather to let their passion drive them past every obstacle.
“As a culture, and especially as a church, we have a problem with not knowing how to fail well,” Smith said.
He believes that so often the Christian community doesn’t teach people how to “fail successfully.” He gave an analogy from training in the police academy where instructors teach participants how to correctly wreck a bike while riding. Their reasoning behind it was that, inevitably, police officers will wreck while riding the bike. The point is to prepare them so in the unfortunate event that a wreck occurs, they aren’t severely injured and set back by it. Smith believes that this is a way of thinking that should be embraced in churches, and in classrooms.
“It’s a value thing. We want to be liked. We don’t want to fail. We want to get it right, and then we’re afraid to take chances even in our academic work,” Klonowski said. “And that doesn’t just go for students, that goes for me as a teacher. I hope that people that heard that message received that. And I mean, how often do you get to have a Broadway composer come to campus? We should take advantage of those things.”
Photo courtesy of The New York Times